The Formula for a Successful New Dance Company

October 29, 2010

Wendy Liscow, Program Officer

Luna Mexicana  1 photo by Saskia Marina

I had a glorious weekend. One of those weekends you aren’t even aware you need until you are in the middle of it and the tension melts away and your soul fills with joy. My typical weekend is as hectic and demanding as the work week, but this weekend I participated in the celebration of two leaders who each acted upon bodacious ideas with unrelenting courage that yielded highly creative outcomes. One visionary, Graham Lustig, launched his new dance company, and the other, Albert Appel, was honored for founding the Appel Farm Arts and Music Center in the middle of Salem County fifty years ago.

If you are familiar with nonprofit lifecycles, which we introduced during the recent kickoff of our Board Leadership Training series, you will recognize that one event celebrated the labor of love of a new start-up and the other celebrated a founder’s vision that has survived 50 years of growth and change to become a solid, mature organization. Although I am anxious to share both stories, I’m going to be disciplined and focus on the Graham Lustig experience and tell the tale of Albert Appel and his groundbreaking efforts in a future blog.

Luna Mexicana 2 photo by Saskia Marina

A Formula for Success

I dashed from work on Friday night to get to Middlesex County College to witness the inaugural performance of the newly born Lustig Dance Theatre company.  Mr. Lustig started his company late this summer after 11 years of artistic leadership at the American Repertory Ballet in New Brunswick. When his departure from ARB was announced, I worried he would leave New Jersey,  and we would lose this great talent. Certainly Graham has the stature and reputation to lead another established dance company. In fact, he is serving part time as artistic director of the Oakland Ballet in California. Fortunately, as Graham told Star-Ledger dance reporter Robert Johnson in a recent interview, he has developed so many valuable and treasured relationships with New Jersey artists, funders and community members that Jersey was the perfect home for his new venture.

It was Graham’s ambitious vision for creating a new company in the midst of a recession that transformed my tired spirit and inspired documentation of the five ingredients in Mr. Lustig’s formula for success:

Ingredient One: Start with strong board members. Like all start-ups, Lustig Dance Theatre’s board is made up of people who believe in the vision of the founder. While the Lustig Dance Theatre board is small, it is dedicated, hard-working and willing to commit the financial support to make the start-up a reality. They were at the opening in full force and deserved their own standing ovation.

Ingredient Two: Respect for artists. This value was evident in every aspect of the performance from the actual choreography to the color photos and bios in the program. Graham set out to hire dancers of the highest caliber which resulted in a company with some of the finest ARB alumni with whom he had a long relationship. He created new works that challenged and featured each of the dancers and he offered long-time colleague Laney Engelhard the opportunity to choreograph a major piece for the premiere.


Ingredient Three: Commit to Excellence and Challenge Yourself. Incorporating live musicians into a dance program is often a financial and creative stretch for a dance company. In fact the Dodge Foundation is funding The American Music Center to administer the Live Music for Dance regranting program for New Jersey dance companies aimed at breaking down the financial constraints. (The proposal deadline for these grants is December 1, 2010.)  Mr. Lustig didn’t have time to tap into these resources, yet he used live musicians for two of the four new works on the program. Vocalist Ereni Sevasti sang six beautiful songs accompanied by guitarist Steve Jones as part of a new work called “Torch.” Each song provided a love story vignette which showcased and introduced us to the company.

Ingredient Four: Make your work accessible to audiences. Dance NJ , the service organization representing our state’s wide array of dance companies, schools and dance artists, has been advocating for innovative approaches to make dance less intimidating and more accessible to audiences. Graham took this proverbial bull by the horns and produced an impressive short introductory film that not only provided insight into the choreographers’ visions, it also allowed the audience to find meaningful entry points into the works.

Ingredient Five: Have fun. The title piece, “Luna Mexicana,” demonstrated Graham’s playfulness and storytelling prowess. In honor of Day of the Dead and in anticipation of Halloween, Graham told the story of the dead awakening via the dream of a young woman. The pictures throughout this blog post show the ingenuity and fun that the choreographers, dancers and audience all had with the piece.

Luna Mexicana 1

Luna Mexicana_0484

The frustrating thing about dance is that the artists work tirelessly for months and months for just one or two performances. Though the Lustig Dance Theatre company doesn’t currently have a follow-up performance, I am certain we will be hearing a lot more from this company for many years to come.

Tell us your formula for success when implementing a new idea or project.

Luna Mexicana photos by Saskia Marina and Ron Lessard, courtesy of Lustig Dance Theatre